Political Rivalry in Rhode Island: William H. Vanderbilt vs. J. Howard McGrath: The Wiretapping Case

By Mulligan, Debra A. | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Political Rivalry in Rhode Island: William H. Vanderbilt vs. J. Howard McGrath: The Wiretapping Case


Mulligan, Debra A., Historical Journal of Massachusetts


The political scene in Rhode Island was eventful during the interwar years. Fractious competition between Democrats and Republicans throughout the 1920s and 1930s resulted in the passage of important legislation which expanded the electorate in the state and challenged the dominance of the traditional Republican bloc made up of Gilded Age industrialists and rural Yankee "aristocrats." Rivaling the old guard for political power, this new class of politician succeeded in capturing a number of seats in the Rhode Island General Assembly. Primarily, but not exclusively of Irish, French Canadian, and Italian descent, the young breed, both in the Democrat and Republican Parties, endeavored to retain their new status and expand their constituency at all costs.

By the closing years of the 1930s, significant factors complicated this already intricate political struggle. Although the Democrats campaigned to topple Republican bossism in Rhode Island, notable Democrat leaders on the state and local level employed many of these same questionable methods once in power.

The 1939 wiretapping case bared many of the intra- and inter-party struggles that had been festering during the interwar years. Pitting Democrat J. Howard McGrath and Republican William H. Vanderbilt, two energetic and ambitious rival politicians, against each other, this scandal raised the issues of the right to privacy and the legality of using evidence obtained through electronic surveillance. Additionally, the case exposed the heated rivalry between the old and new guard within the Republican Party, while simultaneously restoring harmony among the competing forces within the Democrat Party.

In 1938 wealthy, New York-born Republican William Henry Vanderbilt, determined to rid Rhode Island of corruption, set out to corner Pawtucket mayor and unofficial city boss Thomas McCoy (1937-1945) by whatever methods were available. Consequently, Vanderbilt authorized the hiring of a New York detective agency to investigate vote fraud, gambling, and municipal corruption in Pawtucket. Under the direction of Assistant Attorney General Matthew Goring, the Bielaski Agency of New York, reputedly known for its success in uncovering fraud and corruption in Pennsylvania and New York, not only placed listening devices on the home phones of McCoy, but also on Vanderbilt's own attorney general, Italian-American Louis Jackvony. The resulting scandal involving the local, state, and federal government, called into question Rhode Island's interpretation of section #605 of the Federal Communications Act of 1934, which prohibited the "interception," "divulg[ence]," and "publication]" of "intercepted" messages from one party to another, unless prior authorization of the "sender" could be obtained.1

A second player in this scenario was Democrat J. Howard McGrath, a gifted manipulator in the art of political intrigue. Under the tutelage of affluent Democrats Peter Gerry and Theodore Francis Green, leader of the powerful Providence faction of the Democrat Party, McGrath advanced in rank quickly. By the age of thirty, McGrath had held five public offices, including City Solicitor of Central Falls and Democrat State Chairman. Through Green, who strongly supported President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's bid for office in 1932, McGrath was assured the appointment as Federal District Attorney after the seat became available in 1934.2

Perhaps one of the most telling activities of McGrath's career was his involvement in the "Wiretapping case," which not only resulted in Republican Governor William H. Vanderbilt's political ouster, but also catapulted McGrath to statewide prominence. Although Vanderbilt was technically within his rights to authorize the tapping in September 1939, since Rhode Island law did not yet bar the implementation of intrastate wiretapping devices until December, McGrath still used the information to rally public opinion against the beleaguered Vanderbilt.

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